I hadn’t ever been allowed past it, the protective shell around the inner experience that was at the heart of who he was. It was just too strong, the defences were a multitude and he left me wondering what it was that was so difficult that he wouldn’t want access to. Our conversations were pleasant enough, I doubt I did much more at the start than be someone to talk to in confidence and relieve the loneliness once a month. In addition to the psychological defences there were others too – forms of self-medicating to keep the anxiety away of being ‘discovered’, excessive work, over control, alcohol and affairs. The defences had served him well in many ways. He was rich, successful, powerful, had reached the position of CEO that had always been the ultimate aim. Still married, three beautiful children, a stunning home that his wife had designed and built. And yet, it was just taking too much out of him, he was angry and upset most of the time when at home, over-pleasant and adapted most of the time at work.
Then one day, we were fortunate with the timing of our conversation, or maybe there are no accidents. Everything had gone wrong at the same time that day, work, home and health, we met at the end of a few hours that had held no respite. The relationship he most treasured with his Chairman and mentor had taken a turn for the worse and he had intended but forgotten to cancel our conversation. It was in that moment of finally being overwhelmed that we had a tiny glimpse into the core of his being and what he was most defending against. As we worked on the difficulties of the day and his responses to them, there was a story he told me briefly. It is one that I have been permitted and privileged to hear many times over the years from others – of childhood abuse. Sometimes sexual, often physical and always emotional in some way; experiences of over-intrusion or neglect or both.
His body shuddered and he couldn’t stop his hand shaking as he spoke. There was a gentle sigh in us both as we allowed ourselves to talk about the unspeakable for just a few minutes before it had to be put away again.
We drew a diagram together which helped make some more sense of what was going on and took some of the emotional load down a little. It was a way of welcoming the conversation and it not being too much to bear. It felt as if once we had turned to scribbling our sense making onto paper that the enormity of what was being shared was easier to talk about.
Being overwhelmed is something we are fearful of and at the same time can be helpful as we transition from one age to the next.
If our defences are always solid, never breached, then the possibility of anything novel emerging is reduced. It often takes a moment of being overwhelmed before that part of us that we are defending can be seen. In the moment of being hurt, overloaded, caught out, tripped up or humiliated – we get a chance in those moments to see and work with the part of ourselves we spend the rest of our time enclosing in a protective shell.
As we spend time at the edges of what we know and can cope with, the container is strengthened. When we can’t cope, the cracks can allow us to integrate an experience that has been shielded for a lifetime; but refuses to go away or stop causing problems in the rest of our lives.
- What are you defending or shielding most strongly in yourself?
- How does this keep you rooted to the status quo?
- What are the defences you are using?
– psychological, emotional, behavioural and relational – at home and at work
- What are the defences designed to stop you from saying, showing or doing?
- What happens to your defences when you are overwhelmed?
- What are the opportunities these moments present to you?
- What is the worst that could happen if you were to expose the inner workings of your weaker, underdeveloped more vulnerable self?
- And what is the best that could happen?